President Donald Trump consoled America’s children over a rash of horrific school shootings on Thursday but he made it clear that he’s not breaking from his party or political base to shake Washington from polarized positions that fail to stop such tragedies happen again and again.
Trump gave an effective and moving first televised response to the tragedy at a Florida high school from the White House, looking into the camera and telling kids: “I want you to know that you are never alone and you never will be. You have people who care about you, who love you and who will do anything at all to protect you.”
But in an earlier tweet, Trump appeared to blame the people of the Florida community scarred by the murders of 17 students and staff for not doing more to point out how the shooter had become alienated from society. The President seemed to be pre-emptively deflecting the calls for reform of firearms laws that inevitably follow every such outrage.
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior,” Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
Trump’s own history of no-holds-barred rhetoric and political method of using social division as a tool of governing threatened, as they have before, to undermine the effectiveness of his love-beats-hate appeal on Thursday and attempt to bring the nation together at a moment of common grief.
The juxtaposition between the scripted Trump and the apparently more authentic one on display on Twitter and in his spontaneous remarks poses another leadership test for the President as he prepares to console the surviving victims of the attack in a coming visit to Florida and to shoulder the trauma and mitigate the disagreements of a nation that is split on how to go forward.
And even though officials had promised a “plan that works” in response to Wednesday’s horror, Trump spoke without specifics about the need to improve school safety and the need to improve mental health care.
There was, for instance, no talk of whether allowing a 19-year-old – who could not legally buy an alcoholic drink – to get a high-powered weapon after passing background checks that could kill multiple people in seconds was a wise choice by society.
“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference,” Trump said.
But there was no immediate sign that Trump has any inclination to play a leadership role that would have the capacity to redraw the entrenched political stands that both parties are already adopting on gun control after Wednesday’s attack.
’Time and place’
By initially confining his response to Twitter – choosing not to appear on camera on Wednesday and canceling the White House daily press briefing – Trump raised the question of whether the administration is avoiding the inevitable conundrum that arises after such tragedies: Why do they happen here more often than in any other nation?
Such a position would be consistent with the White House’s line following the Las Vegas massacre in October that killed 58 people. In the aftermath, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders rebuked reporters saying that there was a “time and a place for a political debate” but not right after an attack.
Trump told reporters after Las Vegas that “we’ll be talking about gun laws as time goes on.” In retrospect, the comment appeared more an attempt to deflect political pressure than a serious promise to take action as efforts at rudimentary reform in Congress soon fizzled.
An official told CNN’s Kevin Liptak on Thursday that there was debate in the White House on Wednesday about the merits of a presidential statement. But it was decided it was best to wait until more facts were known about the massacre – though Trump has never hesitated to rush to judgment during past terror attacks, even as they unfolded.
There was also some concern that the President, more at ease with the acerbic rhetoric of divided Washington politics than with words of consolation, would not immediately strike the right tone.
“He can be a warm guy but doesn’t always say the right thing,” the official said.
Trump’s absence from the television screens contrasted with the harrowing appearance in the White House briefing room by President Barack Obama, who wiped a tear from his eye after eulogizing the “beautiful little kids” cut down in Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012.
Obama also called on Americans in that appearance to launch a political initiative to take “meaningful action” to stop mass shootings occurring, an effort that eventually failed and caused him to castigate members of Congress.
This time, as after the Las Vegas and Texas church massacres last year, and the Orlando shooting in 2016 and the Charleston killings in 2015, there will be calls for action, more gun control, better background checks, bans on assault rifles and high-powered magazines and better mental health care as well as debates about whether violent video games are partly to blame.
“The reaction of the Democrats to any tragedy is to try to politicize it … calling we have to take away Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. That is not the right answer,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said on “Fox and Friends.”
Other Republicans suggested that such shootings are simply unexplained acts of evil. Others gave unspecific promises to do something.
“We are going to figure this out,” said Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Fox News.
House Speaker Paul Ryan bemoaned the awful tragedy, called on his colleagues to think less about “taking sides and fighting each other politically” and said his chamber had already done much to stop mentally ill people from getting guns.
But earlier, on an Indiana radio show, Ryan made clear that gun control would not be part of the conversations.
“I don’t think that means you then roll that conversation into taking away citizens’ rights - taking away a law-abiding citizen’s rights,” he said, in an interview with Tom Katz on Indiana radio station WIBC.
Some Democrats said that change would only come when voters decide it must.
“If we can break the glacier of complicity in Congress, we can get measures done,” said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal on CNN’s “New Day.” “I think Republicans will act if faced with the prospect of mass losses … What can be done? In a word, elections.”
Usually, after mass shootings, there is a spike in the number of Americans who favor new gun control efforts. But it usually fades when mourning fades from news coverage, giving politicians coverage to give reform a pass.
One reason politicians don’t pay a price is that there is no national consensus on the gun control issue, which exemplifies a cultural gulf between rural and urban Americans, and liberals and conservatives.
Many Republicans sincerely believe their stance on the guns is fundamental to the character of America itself. The National Rifle Association maintains a dominant role in Republican politics, and can also threaten Senate Democrats facing re-election in red states in this year’s midterm elections.
Republicans, such as Ted Cruz, also immediately equate any modest efforts at gun control or attempts to ban the sale of the most powerful weapons to a bid to crush the constitutional right to bear arms and there’s no political incentive for Republicans on Capitol Hill or the White House to take a risky move away from the GOP base on guns.
But many liberals from cities and urban areas have never touched a gun or gone hunting and despair at the government’s inability to ban assault rifles, limit magazines and improve background checks. They have more in common with people in other Western nations who view America’s gun laws as baffling than their conservative compatriots.
Gun control advocates also often note that for conservatives, guns are an existential issue and can motivate them to go to the polls. It’s not always the case for liberal gun control advocates.
Historically, tumultuous societal change – that modifications to gun laws might represent – has required incremental steps over decades, as in the fight for civil rights or equality for same-sex couples. There is evidence to show that in the case of guns momentum has been the other way: The assault weapons ban introduced in the 1990s was allowed to expire in 2004.
The Florida massacre is unlikely to shift the political terrain.
“I gave absolutely no faith in our Congress or elected officials to do anything,” former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday.
Or as Melissa Falkowski, a teacher who hid 19 students in a closet as Nikolas Cruz opened fire, put it on CNN Wednesday: “Society failed those people today.”